Select one of the keywords
The Philadelphian: 50th Anniversary Edition    by Richard Powell order for
by Richard Powell
Order:  USA  Can
Plexus, 2006 (1956)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Richard Powell's bestselling The Philadelphian (made into the 1959 Oscar-nominated film, The Young Philadelphians, starring Paul Newman and Robert Vaughn) has just been reissued in a 50th Anniversary edition. Powell is one of my favorite authors, and I'd read the novel about his hometown before, but enjoyed having a second go at it.

The story spans four generations in Philadelphia. It opens on a lawyer, Anthony Judson Lawrence, about to make a momentous decision (readers wait till the end of the novel to find out its nature). He reflects back on his maternal line (mother to great-grandmother), and wonders about 'the testimony of their lives'. The novel is about the establishment of a dynasty, as each generation rises higher in the city's pecking order, and the key choices that family members make - sometimes admirable and sometimes not - in order to get ahead.

We meet Irish Margaret O'Donnell just off the boat in 1857, leaving behind the Potato Famine and seeking her fortune in a new land. Her strong character wins her a position as maid to the Claytons, a wealthy family at the top of the city's social heap. Though Margaret's brief fling with family scion Glendenning Clayton results in a pregnancy, she scorns game playing or blackmail to improve her situation, and makes her own way.

Her daughter Mary teaches in a public school, with little hope of a good marriage. After a chance meeting with prestigious Franklin Academy's assistant headmaster, Harry Judson, Mary sets her cap at him, making a different choice than her mother did - that of manipulation. (Margaret tells her 'what I did was from the heart, not from the head.') Fortunately, Mary is eventually true to her heritage and finds a path to happiness for herself and Harry.

Mary's daughter, Kate Judson, loves bog Irish Mike Callahan, who's beneath her socially. When offered an opportunity to wed the heir to the rich Lawrence family, she takes it. She pleases Margaret by bearing the son that the family has wanted for generations, but closes off the possibility of happiness for herself. Margaret advises Kate to 'Keep your pride hot and bright' and she, like all the others, succeeds in this.

These three generations of women take up the first third of the book, and allow us to see Kate's son, Anthony Lawrence, in context of his heritage. He grows up to manhood on the fringes of high society, with both good luck and bad, and with a caring extended family guiding his development. Readers see key moments and decisions that form his character - the grad Salutatory, the girl he loves and loses at Princeton, how he handles his boss's wife's desire for a fling, and his risk-taking in wartime (though he's not in combat).

Anthony eventually finds himself at the city's pinnacle, partner in a prestigious law firm and dating society Golden Girl Grace Shippen. Then comes the climax, when he's handed 'a rattlesnake in a gunny sack'. Tony takes on the defence of accused murderer Chet Gwynne, a case the prosecutor hopes to exploit politically, and that might lose Tony everything he has struggled for. Though a clever courtroom drama gets him out of this one and he wins 'one great big jackpot' with Grace as his wife, he's eventually asked to put it all on the line once more - which takes us right back to the opening. How will he decide?

This new edition has a Foreword by Robert Vaughn, who says that playing Chet Gwynne in the movie 'helped to launch my career in film and television'. Not to be missed (and also new to this edition) is Richard Powell's previously unpublished essay, The Personality of Philadelphia, in which he gives his perspective of many US cities (calling New Orleans, for example a 'Creole Marilyn Monroe'), and tells how The Philadelphian is 'the result of many years of hot and heavy family argument' with his wife Marian (she was from Cleveland).

Aside from the engaging characters and many twists and turns of plot, I enjoyed the author's trademark wit, spotting the seeds of others of his novels (in particular The Soldier), and his characters' ability to reflect back honestly on their lives - and not always with pride. The Philadelphian is a great and gripping story - if you missed it in the last fifty years, don't miss it now!

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Historical books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews